The scenery in the Peruvian mountains is breathtaking, with some of the Andes’ most spectacular subranges. A bike is the perfect way to explore the huge network of small mountain roads which snake through the country – roads which may or may not appear on published maps you manage to lay your hands on. The climbs are often huge, the culture is fascinating, the local people are extremely friendly, and if you spend all your time on the quiet roads you won’t have to deal with the poor driving.
We’ve only cycled in the southern third of the country, but those two months (and photos we’ve seen from other cyclists further north) are sufficient to convince us that Peru has the best cycle touring routes in the Andes.
Peru has borders with Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador in the Andes (as well as with Brazil in the lowlands).
To Chile there is only one option – the straightforward crossing at Concordia on the Panamericana between Tacna and Arica.
To Bolivia there are a few options – the most popular and easy being on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca at Yunguyo/Copacabana; or a bit further south at Desaguadero. It is also possible to cross on the eastern side of the lake between Moho and Puerto Acosta, but this requires some planning to get the relevant stamps in your passport – see here.
To Ecuador the busiest route follows the Panamericana, but plenty of more adventurous cyclists cross further to the east from Jaen over to Zumba and Loja.
Peru by Lima 2000 was the best map of Peru we could find while in South America. Like many road maps of Peru it was accurate enough for main roads but not particularly good for the smaller mountain roads. It’s available from our favourite London shop, Stanfords.
Peru by Michelin which is more widely available in Europe is of about the same accuracy as the Lima 2000 map. Both omit roads, both invent roads and both make other errors, though not necessarily the same ones.
As many small roads don’t appear on either of these maps, your best bets if you want to get off the beaten track are to ask a local person (preferably someone with a vehicle who is more likely to know the roads), get information from cyclist blogs, or spend hours poring over Google Earth.
If anyone knows of better maps, please let us know.
April to October is the dry season in the Peruvian Andes and the best time to cycle there, although it can be cold. January and February are the wettest months when high routes are particularly likely to be closed by snows. The onset of the rainy season is accompanied by frequent afternoon thunder and hail storms. Though the Peruvian Andes are not known for being exceptionally windy like regions further south, the weather can still be unpredictable so be prepared for bad conditions at any time of year.
The most memorable features of mountain roads in Peru are the long climbs and descents on beautiful sweeping zigzags. The gradients in Peru are rarely steep, presumably because if they were the ancient buses and trucks would never make it up them. As ever, unpaved conditions are a mixed bag – some good surfaces, some shocking.
Although we have very little experience on busy or paved routes in Peru we have heard from numerous cyclists that the drivers are amongst the worst on the continent. Another reason to avoid the tarmac and head out on the quieter roads.
Like most South American countries the best way to get about on public transport in Peru is by bus. Getting the bike on board is usually little hassle, though there may be a small charge. On more modern coaches between larger towns bikes will probably be put under the bus, while on older buses in smaller places they may well end up on the roof.
As always, keep a very good eye on your kit at bus stations to guard against opportunist theft. It’s a good idea to buy a cheap plastic bag (of the tartan variety) to put all your panniers in so you only have that and your bike to watch over. It’s much harder for someone to run off with a bulky 20kg bag than to just grab a pannier and leg it.
If you can’t face lugging all your kit up the big climbs, an option is to send a parcel of kit you don’t need for a while ahead using the coach companies’ encomiendas (cargo) services. We only have anecdotal evidence of how reliable these services are (from others and having used them ourselves a couple of times without issue). To maximize the chances of your parcel arriving at its destination it’s a good idea to ask local people which are the most reputable firms, disguise your kit so it doesn’t scream ‘gringo bag’, don’t send anything you can’t afford to lose, and check beforehand how long they’ll keep the package for you at the destination.
Apart from in well known trekking regions, camping isn’t common in Peru. However finding a bed for the night is relatively inexpensive as Peru is on a par with Bolivia in terms of cost, and so is one of the cheapest countries in South America. In late 2010 we found it was always possible to find a double room for less than $15US and it’s not unusual to be able to find one for less than half this price.
Note that on the Puna in the south of Peru the atmosphere is so dry that tent fabric shrinks and it can become very difficult or impossible to get your tent poles in. Zips become fragile and regularly break in the dry atmosphere, so treat them carefully. Also be aware of how much damage UV can do to your tent. UV degrades tent fabrics and it is particularly strong in high altitude areas.
Food & Drink
Food in the Peruvian Andes is nothing to write home about, though you may well still appreciate it if you’ve just come from Bolivia.
Chifas (Chinese restaurants) can be found in many towns and generally serve generous helpings of good food at a decent price. Two course almuerzos (lunches) and cenas (dinners) served by most restaurants are a bargain.
Chicha morada (purple maize) is a deliciously sweet syrupy drink.
In touristy places like Lima, Cuzco and Huaraz you’ll find decent bike shops, though quality gear for touring may be hard to find. Cycling isn’t common in most areas of the Peruvian Andes and as a result in many villages and towns it will be difficult to find any spares at all. It may be possible to order spares from a shop in Lima and get it sent via encomiendas on a bus. Anibal at Ciclo Turismo Peru has been known to send parts to stricken cyclists via the Cruz del Sur bus company. As with other Andean countries, 26” tyres are the easiest size to find.